A drug widely used to treat anxiety “ruined” the life of a woman whose partner died after an overdose.
Haley Selby said Brian Rees took pregabalin in capsules he bought from an “associate”.
Wales has 33 pregabalin or gabapentin died last year, said the ONScompared to 10 in 2019 when the drugs were made prescription-only.
One GP said pregabalin was at the “font line” of antidepressant prescribing because of counseling waiting times.
Ms Selby, 38, from Tonyrefail in Rhondda Cynon Taf, said her partner was buying so-called “street pregab” in 2020, explaining how it was “easy” to get from people selling their prescription.
“Brian made a bad mistake and took pills he wasn’t prescribed and it ended up killing him,” he said of his partner of 21 years.
“He’s taking quite a bit, not just one or two, he’s taking a strip.”
Pregabalin, similar to gabapentin and sometimes known by the brand name Lyrica, is prescribed to treat epilepsy, nerve pain, anxiety and depression.
It can be addictive and cause breathing difficulties, leading to death and heart problems, and is a class C drug, making it illegal to have in the UK without a prescription.
“If you only take them [pregabalin] to have a buzz, it’s not worth it,” he said.
Distraught over Brian’s death, she became dependent on diazepam – another drug prescribed as an antidepressant.
Ms Selby said she “hated” pregabalin for what it had done to her life and to others.
And since Brian’s death, he says the cost-of-living crisis has pushed more people to sell their prescriptions.
The couple were among five suspects arrested in an unsolved murder investigation that began on 1 November 2017 when the battered body of Jamie Perkins, 41, a former boxer, was found dumped in a culvert in Gilfach Goch.
He had amphetamines and pregabalin in his system.
In 2021 a coroner found Mr Perkins was unlawfully killedbut no one was charged.
Doctors in Wales prescribed pregabalin and gabapentin 607,885 times in 2022, up 14% from 533,833 in 2019, according to Welsh government prescription data.
Newport GP Dr Mohan De Silva said the drug first used in the US in 2004 to treat epilepsy was now at the “front line” of antidepressant treatments.
“You see almost everyone taking pregabalin for chronic pain issues, anxiety issues,” he said.
Five years ago diazepam topped the “GP’s prescription pad” for depression he said, now it’s pregabalin.
“We’re fixing the deck chairs,” he said. “We got rid of the opiates, [which were] causing great harm and addiction.
“Benzodiazepine prescriptions pretty much disappeared so I think that resulted in a gap and pregabalin took over.”
He says it’s also used to treat pain, especially for what he calls “exponential growth” in patients with fibromyalgia symptoms.
“Obviously there will be higher prescriptions,” he said, “and the temptation for them to divert if there’s some money to be made.”
Dr De Silva said pregabalin was sought after by opiate users because it “enhances the effect” of heroin.
But it’s also a respiratory depressant, he said, “so you can overdose quickly”.
The ONS said the increased deaths involving pregabalin and gabapentin across England and Wales in 2021 are the result of the drugs being taken with heroin or morphine, which increases the risk of overdose.
The Home Office is not published figures on police seizures of pregabalin or gabapentin separately from other Class C drugs since they were reclassified in 2019.
But researchers at Keele University said in a paper published in the Lancet Medical Journal that the proposal had a “limited” impact on misuse.
Jodie Davies, 42, a recovered heroin addict from Tonyrefail, said she was taking pregabalin for fibromyalgia.
He said it was a “kick in the teeth” to need the tablets after “all the work I did to get it all off”.
But having a prescription also means strangers showing up at his door, asking if he wants to sell.
“They watch the chemist and see who is prescribing what,” he said.
“This is definitely the next epidemic of medical drugs, like diazepam,” he said. “I know people now go to doctors saying they are sick and selling their strips because they can’t pay their rent.
“They don’t know the damage they’re doing, because it’s addictive… worse than heroin withdrawal.
“I can’t move in the morning until I get my pregabalin,” he says, “but in the wrong hands they’re dangerous.”
Can doctors limit pregabalin?
Dr De Silva said GPs would be left scrambling to find something else to prescribe.
“I hope it’s not just another pill, but there will be a sincere effort to replace it with non-drug pathways such as talking therapies and other psychological interventions, to get to the root of why the people of pain and trauma in their lives.”
Overall, more than 7 million antidepressant prescriptions are given in Wales in the year to March, up 17.5% from 5.9 million in 2019.
Patients waiting eight weeks or more for mental health counseling rose to 451 in September StatsWales said – a 247% increase from the 130 patients waiting that long compared to the same month five years ago.
More timely access to counseling would help doctors write better prescriptions, Dr De Silva said.
“People are struggling to cope with the trials and tribulations of modern life,” he said. “We need to help them get through the day without taking a tablet.”
The Welsh government says it is “committed to improving access to mental health services” and has increased investment in tackling substance misuse by almost £67m this year.
“We expect GPs to use their clinical judgement,” it said. “Anti-depressants are effective treatments that, when used appropriately, help a large number of people.”
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